He thought the worst was behind him at last. The black cloud that had haunted him for three years was gone, and Mario Lemieux, hockey's crown prince, was back in control of his kingdom. It was mid-December and Lemieux was finally free of cancer, free of the anemia that resulted from his radiation treatment and free of the back pain that had dogged him for years. All the fear and self-doubt that had come with the illnesses and injuries had also disappeared.
After 18 months away from hockey, Lemieux, the Pittsburgh Penguin superstar center, had made his return to the game when the season opened in October, and his encore performance was more spectacular than anyone could have imagined. In the Year of the Comeback, Super Mario once again stood alone. There were times early in the season when nothing seemed impossible for Lemieux or for the surprising Penguins, a team he has lifted to elite status once again. In a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in November, Lemieux had seven points; he had four goals against the Boston Bruins later that month. By December he was averaging nearly three points per game, a pace that no one has ever sustained over an entire NHL season, and had reestablished himself as the world's most dominant player.
Everything, at last, seemed to be back to normal. Then he felt it. "The little lump," he says. It was two weeks before Christmas and Lemieux was performing a routine physical exam, searching the areas around his armpits and neck for any sign of the cancer that had attacked his body. The new little lump was on the opposite side of his neck from where he had found the other little lump in January 1993, the swollen lymph node that turned out to be Hodgkin's disease.
"It's here," he told me, pointing to the area where he had found the lump recently. "It's been there a little while. It hasn't grown, though. It's fine. Really. The doctor said to just keep an eye on it. It's real small, nothing to be alarmed about."
When you've battled cancer and survived, when you've been through physical and emotional warfare with the disease, any lump can seem like a huge lump. Usually these discoveries turn out to be false alarms. That doesn't mean they don't send a blue streak of fear and panic through every inch of your being.
There is a reason Lemieux chose to share his recent discovery with me and not with other journalists. He knew I would understand that terrifying feeling he experienced last month. I knew what it was like to suddenly find one of those little lumps in my neck. I knew what it was like to be 28 years old, frightened, confused and not quite sure if I would live to see my next birthday. Like Mario, I am a survivor of Hodgkin's disease.
In December 1992, two weeks before his Hodgkin's was diagnosed, I traveled to Pittsburgh to interview Lemieux. I had been covering the NHL for the Boston Herald for eight years, and he had been tearing up the league for most of my tenure.
He was the best player on the planet, but he was also guarded and reticent, and no one really knew what he was like outside the rink. My editor hoped I could get a look at the private side of Lemieux, but for all of my digging, the most revealing nugget I could unearth was his passion for wine collecting. I learned that he owned a bottle of 1966 Chateau Petrus, a Bordeaux valued at $600 to $700.
Two weeks later I was back in Pittsburgh to write another story about Lemieux. Only this time we were not alone—he had convened a press conference to announce that he had cancer. Suddenly the public got a look at the private side of Lemieux.
As I stood in a ballroom at the Pittsburgh Hyatt listening to a stoic Lemieux and scribbling in my notebook, I felt a swirl of emotions. Mario didn't know what lay ahead for him, but I sure did. I had learned three years before that I had a much more advanced case of Hodgkin's. Lemieux's doctors made it sound as if radiation treatments would be as routine as a trip to the dentist, but unfortunately, I knew better. I knew Lemieux was in for the toughest winter of his life. I knew that even if his body recovered completely—as his doctors assured us it would—his outlook on life would never be the same.